Call me a cynic but hype makes me nervous and promotion turns me fidgety, especially when it follows an election, especially when three little words -- “Chamber of Commerce” -- follow the person or idea being hyped, particularly when said organization is celebrating its 200th year of existence.
But still, like everyone else, I want to believe. I want to have someone and something to believe in.
So when I started reading all the promotion and hoopla surrounding Richard Florida’s Savannah appearance I wanted to see what he had to say about our wonderful, beautiful city that is so close and yet so far away from having it all, our wonderful, beautiful, livable city that can and does break your heart every day in every way.
Maybe I wanted too much.
Florida is all about looking at cities and telling Chamber of Commerce types what makes some cities more desirable than others -- both to live in and to visit.
Since few cities manufacture anything concrete anymore, the trick, Florida says, is to come up with new ways to keep existing residents happy, to give potential residents enough reasons to move here.
Florida and others call these new residents “smart people” and the jobs they do “knowledge-based,” which is a buzzword for work done on computers.
So far so good.
We have the requisite fiber-optics for the smart people. Check. We have the art colleges and the technical colleges. Check. We have the art scene, the night scene, the parks, the gay people. Check. We have the tolerance (sort of). Check.
But it’s what we should do with and for the service industry where things get murky.
I understand when Florida and others talk about Toyota’s model versus the Big Three auto manufacturers m.o., about addressing the people on the line versus the CEO, about decisions coming from the bottom-up versus top-down.
I understand -- sort of -- the part about everyone being potentially creative.
But then I’m lost. Maybe I’m too literal or too impatient, but when he says these things I keep waiting for him to follow up with how we can make them happen.
If he’s talking to Chamber of Commerce types and if a city’s reputation hinges on its service industry -- as well as its ability to attract “smart people” -- I think Florida and the rest of us need to be a little more direct, a lot more Toyota-ish.
For starters, how about asking the people occupying the vast rungs of service what they need to be more creative and therefore more receptive, more pleasant, more adept at solving problems.
How about asking those who are staffing motel desks, ringing grocery store cash registers, washing dishes, waiting on tables, drawing blood, taking names in an emergency room what they need to do their jobs better.
Yes. Their answers might start with higher salary and better shifts. But I bet they would go beyond that.
I’m betting they’d be more pleasant - and do better jobs - if they had nicer break rooms, if they didn’t have to worry about day care, if they had occasional massages, if they had better training, if their path to better jobs were stated clearer, if they didn’t have to worry about their health, if as a bonus they received random tickets to a symphony or an art museum or a yoga workshop or, gasp, a day off.
Because in the long run, who wants to live in a city -- no matter how extensive the fiber-optics or smart the people or available the parks -- if the people we come into contact with daily are surly, mean-spirited or crabby?
Here’s an example of something that happened the same day Florida was speaking. A dogcatcher nabs a dog, calls the owner and says, “Get in here by tomorrow with proof of the dog’s shots or go to court.”
Granted, in a civilized society we have to take care of our pets. But how about starting the conversation this way: “Good morning. I have some good news for you. I have your dog. I know you’re relieved. Please come and get him or her and let’s make sure he or she is properly immunized? And since this is your first brush with us, how ‘bout we call it a draw”?
And dare we go into the people who staff the city’s inspection or permits department? the one in which all construction -- and in some people’s minds, progress -- hinges?
If we want to draw creative people, if we want to keep those creative people happy, if we want to keep those creative people in Savannah, if we want to see more construction and therefore an expanded tax base, then the first thing we have to do is beef up the number of people working in that particular city department and ramp up the training they get in answering phones and being pleasant.
To Mr. Florida: Thanks for thinking about these things and for being so available in your blog.
To the Chamber of Commerce: Thanks for bringing Mr. Florida. Thanks for caring about wanting to make this city great. Thanks for drawing together a diverse group of people.
Maybe the next time we all come together we can get more specific. But let’s not wait another 200 years.